The West Australian

Loneliness is an epidemic, too

- Renée Gardiner RENÉE GARDINER IS THE DIRECTOR OF KOTA, A HEALTH AND LEADERSHIP ACADEMY

It’s hard to believe that in our hyper-connected, always turned-on digital world, Australia is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic.

In an alarming pre-pandemic survey (yep, even before lockdowns and social distancing kicked in), more than half of Australian­s experience­d feelings of loneliness at least once a week.

When you add in the extra COVID stressors of the past year, it’s easy to see how the mental health needs of our population have dramatical­ly escalated. And it begs the question, do the ends really justify the means?

With the research telling us one-in-four people consider themselves chronicall­y lonely, it’s unsurprisi­ng we’re now starting to pay attention to the directly correlated increased risks it brings of physical and mental health conditions. These include cardiovasc­ular disease, inflammato­ry illness, premature mortality, depression and anxiety, and cognitive decline.

Countries around the world are starting to take action as a result — Britain appointed a minister for loneliness in 2018 with Japan following suit in response to the rise in suicide as a result of the COVID pandemic.

Here in Australia, peak advocacy group the Consumers Health Forum of Australia, together with private health insurer Medibank, have called for a nationally co-ordinated plan to address the loneliness epidemic.

So how can it be done? With rising inequality, increased mental anguish and prolonged instabilit­y, a cultural shift away from siloed institutio­nal systems, towards integrated primary health and social care networks can offer promising benefits.

Grappling with this silent and insidious epidemic is an enormous task for government­s to deal with and the complexity of contributo­ry factors means tackling the issue with any real success requires a collaborat­ive cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholde­r approach.

In a positive step forward, this week Victoria announced a rollout of local mental health hubs providing clinical and non-medical care in regional areas, to address the “missing middle” in community mental health.

When thinking about the vastness of WA, this model is worthy of considerat­ion.

Unfortunat­ely, the heroes in the social services sector do a lot of the heavy lifting, and government­s have typically relied on under-resourced community organisati­ons to plug the gaping hole.

Even so, interventi­ons are often targeted at vulnerable and marginalis­ed groups, meaning that you either need to be in a state of absolute crisis, or suffering from extreme social or financial hardship, to access the profession­al care and support these expert services offer.

Pharmacolo­gical interventi­ons alone often fail to address root causes of mental illness and slap a bandaid over symptoms rather than critically resolve the issues.

But we have an opportunit­y to break the paralysis of symptom management and embrace new, innovative enterprise and service delivery models to achieve vital wellbeing.

Community capital in the form of grassroots collective­s provide part of the puzzle, and community gardens and men’s sheds, knitting nannas and dance groups all contribute to a healthy social fabric.

The “social prescribin­g” movement, well establishe­d in places including Britain and Netherland­s, offers a viable way forward. Patients are referred by their health provider to a “link worker”, who, armed with a community prescripti­on pad, assesses their social and emotional wellbeing needs, as well as learning and skills developmen­t.

We’re starting to see an uptake of this commonsens­e approach in Australia, with programs such as the Community Link Booth initiative at Fiona Stanley Hospital, which aims to address isolation and inequity, as well as reduce GP and ED visits.

It’s clear a major reorientat­ion of primary health is needed if we are to really improve quality-of-life outcomes for patients and carers, and reduce the economic burden on our health system.

We can make big changes if we take bold action to move from transactio­nal economics to a resilient system built on the value of relationsh­ips.

The Willie Rioli case intrigues me. Following adverse testing results in August 2019 and a provisiona­l suspension applied in September 2019, it has taken until March 2021 for the AFL to apply a back-dated suspension for the offence.

It only takes approximat­ely one week for the Department of Transport to provide me with the photograph­ic evidence from the Multanova camera for my speeding offence with an accompanyi­ng invoice for the applied fine.

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